Opting out of student achievement

Standardized testing controversy in WNY makes students victims of debate

A debate over standardized tests is reaching a fever pitch across Western New York as teachers and rally groups formally proclaim their opposition, all with students stuck in the middle, sitting and staring, caught between bureaucracy and ideology.

Discontent has grown over the past year toward state-mandated standardized tests administered to elementary and middle school students. The furor has been fueled as the more rigorous - and controversial - Common Core standards influence the exams. Parents revile the tests as difficult and burdensome, with claims that they count too much toward teacher evaluations and fail to demonstrate real learning.

Beyond innocuous yard signs and some vitriolic emails, parental disapproval has gone the way of having children "opt out" of exams, a mechanism typically reserved for concerns more substantive than ideological disagreement. This allows students to sit out of tests while their classmates take them.

Opting out, however, costs these children, and students across the state, more than has been appreciated. Opting students out of exams also opts them out of an incentive to learn, opts the state out of invaluable data and opts future generations out of otherwise informed education reforms.

Across the region, irate parents are having children opt out, which wouldn't be so much of a problem if it were an isolated incident. In West Seneca, as many as 37 percent of third to eighth graders opted out of last week's English Language Arts exam, according to The Buffalo News. In East Aurora, the number was 15.5 percent.

As more parents jump on the anti-Common Core, anti-test bandwagon, irrespective of consequences, students are becoming pawns in the battle. Students are forced in some districts to stay in the room with only the test in front of them due to a policy known pejoratively as "sit and stare" and rationally as "what every other student is doing." The tactic has been a flash point for the controversy.

Doubtlessly, the policy is unproductive for students, though it emblematically reveals the inability of administrators and parents to bridge differences with students left paying the price for incivility. Providing more attractive alternatives to taking a test, however, would only incentivize opting out and set a dangerous precedent for educational policy to be dictated by the loudest, angriest parents in a state, as opposed to careful consideration by trained educators.

Though standardized tests have problems, they have become an integral part of the education system that will not be removed by students opting out. These state tests, particularly, provide metrics for how to shift education policy, improve teaching methods and ensure classes are taught by the highest quality of teachers.

Issues exist and must be addressed, but the testing room is not the forum for dissent, and students - present and future - should not be the medium. Opting out is a dangerous method that causes more damage to protesters, who lose legitimacy, and children, most troublingly.

Tests themselves cause stress and anxiety (rigorous state tests, most of all) - this much is true. But denying students the experience to familiarize themselves with tests and standards robs them of the experience necessary to make it through college admissions exams and university finals successfully.

What this debate requires is exactly what students are taught to exhibit - careful consideration of evidence, well-formed ideas and nuanced reasoning. So long as this remains a battle in which parents just pull students from any process they don't like, the only ones who will suffer are those students.

email: editorial@ubspectrum.com